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(2007) (Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts) (R)

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Drama: As a hospital midwife attempts to find an orphaned newborn's extended family, she unknowingly stumbles into the underground world of the Russian mafia in London.
Anna Khitrova (NAOMI WATTS) is a midwife at a London hospital who's just helped deliver a newborn. With the baby's teenager mother having died during delivery, Anna takes it upon herself to find the child's extended family. Yet, the only thing she has to work with is Tatiana's diary, but since it's in Russian, she can't read it. She asks her uncle Stepan (JERZY SKOLIMOWSKI) to translate it, but he thinks it's wrong to have "robbed" a dead person. Her mother, Helen (SINÉAD CUSACK), with whom she lives, however, understands her daughter's quest, especially still Anna's only child was stillborn.

Anna's quest eventually leads her to Semyon (ARMIN MUELLER-STAHL), a successful restaurateur, and underground Russian mob boss who takes an interest in translating the diary, especially when he hears that it's Tatiana's. At the same time, however, he must contend with his loose cannon son Kirill (VINCENT CASSEL), whose activities have led another mob figure, Azim (MINA E. MINA), to have a man killed. Word now is that the victim's family is headed their way for revenge, and Semyon is worried, although he knows his stoic driver, Nikolai Luzhin (VIGGO MORTENSEN), can probably handle matters.

He can, but Nikolai also shows an interest in Anna and her quest. That attention makes her uneasy, especially as she stumbles deeper into the underground world of Russian mobsters in London. Nevertheless, she continues her efforts, a pursuit that potentially endangers her life as the various elements of the mystery start coming together.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Considering that the corporate world has taken over many, if not all of the Vegas and Atlantic City casinos, and that "The Sopranos" has finally gone off to sleep with the fishes after an illustrious run on HBO, those enamored with all things mob-related might feel a bit let down.

Of course, for most such people, that's sort of a fantasy type reaction, as they realize that the real world mob is a dangerous and deadly criminal enterprise, and that those who've come face-to-face with its elements don't harbor many pleasant memories.

Nevertheless, a certain segment of the American public (and possibly others as well) is still enamored with that mysterious world, at least when fictionalized, and that's probably because of its highly regimented structure and the willingness and ability to do whatever it takes to deal with anyone who gets in their way.

Accordingly, while it's shocking and scary that the Russian mafia is apparently alive and well (evident by a recent murder via poisoning), mob fans can rejoice that some of their make-believe wise guys populate "Eastern Promises." Something of a companion piece to "A History of Violence," it comes from the decidedly assured hands of David Cronenberg who not only helmed that acclaimed pic, but also films such as "The Dead Zone," "Dead Ringers" and "The Fly."

All have probed the human psyche in ways that aren't always exactly pleasant (especially viscerally), and that's the case again here. Yet, rather than featuring the American mafia arriving in small town America and looking for their man as occurred in "History," Cronenberg -- who works from a script by Steven Knight -- has the story unfold in London, where a hospital midwife unknowingly traipses into the Russia mob underworld while searching for a newborn orphan's extended family.

The result is an always engaging, smartly compelling, and occasionally ultra-violent experience that's good, but not quite as great as its predecessor. While I didn't expect the same sort of film -- despite the filmmaker brining back his lead Viggo Mortensen and replacing blond beauty Maria Bello with the somewhat similar looking Naomi Watts -- it does slightly falter in several ways when comparing the two.

For one, it doesn't dig as deep into its thematic material as the earlier pic, which dealt with the issues of violence, such as whether that's nature or nurture based, and such. It also doesn't feature the "fun" element of trying to figure out if Mortensen's "Violence" character is telling the truth about who he is. Then there's the twist toward the end of this one that just didn't work for me, simply because it undermines all that preceded it. It nearly feels like one of those cheap add-ons that some studio flunky felt was needed after test audiences had some issue with how things originally played out.

Up until then, however, the film works quite well on a number of fronts. The performances are top-notch, especially from Mortensen who easily should be rewarded with nominations if not wins come awards season time. Like any good mob character, his is mesmerizing in the way charisma mixes with brutality and self-assuredness. It's easily one of the actor's best performances.

And it's his chemistry with Vincent Cassel -- rather than Watts (although that's interesting on another level) - that's the most compelling aspect of the film. The latter plays the loose cannon son to the restaurateur-cum-mob boss terrifically played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Kirill is both a brother and master figure to Mortensen's driver. The easy and unsettling switch from buddy to privileged boss is fascinating, fueled by the two actors expertly playing off each other.

The relationship between the mob employee and hospital midwife, though, is what gives the film its much-needed dose of humanity (and, alas, also leads to the eventual misguided, third-act twist). Watts is quite good as the determined, but in over her head character, and her quest to help the newborn makes her all the more appealing.

That soft touch is certainly needed as the film contains some gripping and shocking moments of brutal violence, ranging from a less than expert or quick throat slitting to snipping off the fingers of a dead man to conceal his identity. But the scene that will have everyone talking is when Mortensen's nude character must fight off two clothed men, armed with curved knives, in a bathhouse.

Just as the beach landing opening scene in "Saving Private Ryan" gave viewers a "you are there" visceral experience, this multi-minute sequence will do the same for realistic, to the death, hand to hand fighting. It's clearly meant to shock and more than ably succeeds, meaning it will probably stick with viewers for some time.

Which pretty much holds true for the overall film, thanks to Cronenberg's masterful storytelling and the strong to excellent performances from his cast. If not for the ending, this would be a near brilliant film, although certainly not for all viewers, especially the squeamish. "Eastern Promises" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed September 10, 2007 / Posted September 21, 2007

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